In November 2005 the junior Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, spoke at the Kaiser Family Foundation event, "Sex on TV 4." Making a reference to a report by that name, he said: "But the concern shared by so many parents today - a concern that frankly hasn't been taken seriously enough by some on the left - is that raising your children this way has become exceedingly difficult in a mass media culture that saturates our airwaves with a steady stream of sex, violence, and materialism."
Senator Obama went on to talk about the serious challenges facing all parents, including himself and his wife, in regulating what their children see and experience on the internet. The flood of new devices, new websites and mobile technology all converging on long suffering and hard working parents only made their job harder.
What a difference three years makes. President-elect Obama will soon be in a position to do something about making kids safer online. He could begin by glancing back to the Clinton Administration. In the late 90's, Vice President Gore convened annual White House Internet Summits, pulling together the government agency heads, CEOs of Internet companies and the leading nonprofit groups working in the field. He and President Clinton would use their respective bully pulpits and urge industry to do more while calling on Congress and key Administration officials to work more closely together. The White House website employed a content label and had helpful tips for parents on how to keep their kids from inappropriate material.
The Bush Administration, much to the dismay of family and values-based groups, simply ignored the issue. No more summits, no more safety tips and not a lot of attention given to the emerging and complex problems brought about by a Web 2.0 world of social networking sites, cyberbullying and the explosion of user-generated porn. Over the past eight years, there has been a complete lack of leadership at the highest levels of government leading many departments, notably, Justice, Commerce, Education and the FCC and FTC to go off in numerous and sometimes, conflicting directions.
Congress, too, has been busy. While there has not been a repeat of constitutionally-flawed legislation such as the Communications Decency Act, we have seen a bill sponsored by Sen. Stevens which empowers the FTC to conduct online safety awareness raising and education efforts, the NTIA at Commerce to set up a Working Group and schools that receive the e-rate to include online safety in their curriculum. Alas, none of these measures has any funding attached to them. In the meantime, Senator Pryor has steered through a bill requiring the FTC to conduct a review of "advanced blocking technologies" to see if there are better ways to protect kids in our converging, media world.
We could look overseas and follow the excellent example of Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the UK and create a review of the impact of the online world on our kids, making recommendations on how best to respond. Or consider the European Union, which is about to enter its tenth year of the Safer Internet Program - a multi-million Euro project which awards grants to charities and companies that collaborate on effective technology tools and educational campaigns to create a safer online environment. The program has done much to discourage a patchwork of onerous content restrictions and regulations across the member states, while encouraging industry self-regulation and innovation by the nonprofit sector.
What the next US Administration could productively do is to find a way to coordinate a national strategy on online safety and to get all the various efforts working together, rather than in isolation. It would send a very strong signal if, for instance, the President established the post of Chief Online Safety Officer, directly responsible to the CTO of the United States, to help unify his Administration's efforts.
With two young girls about to move into the White House, now would be a very good time to ensure that their parents, and all parents across the country, understand how best to protect their kids from the worst of the web. With the right tools and rules, the Obamas could more effectively instruct their children to act responsibly on the Internet and to make wise choices online.
Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute
The FOSI Annual Conference will be held in Washington, DC on December 11, 2008 at the Knight Conference Center at the Newseum.